When you first begin a conversation with someone you recently met, what kind of information do you tend to share? Well, definitely (I hope) your name, maybe what you do, and most likely, where you are from. Where are you are from. This is a big one. There is something about where you were born that gives you a cornerstone to your personality. It roots you. Being you without acknowledging this place of founding would be semi-impossible.
Lets transfer that idea to art. Art is Italian art, French art, American art, Chinese art, etc. Maybe in todays world we are coming up with more transnational or cross disciplinary categories, like Southeast Asian art, or Pop Art. But, at the end of the day all these labels still speak to a place, a location. Even Pop Art. While it can refer to art made from anywhere around the world, containing certain characteristics, its essence is in America, with Andy Warhol, who was responding to the increasing commercialization of the art scene and culture in New York City at the time. I recently attended a talk at the Vatican Museums as part of their Il Giovedi dei Musei series. This talk was a discussion between two top museum directors: Antonio Paolucci of the Vatican Museums and Antonio Natali of the Uffizi Gallery. Quite a dynamic duo, no? These men are leading two of the most world famous museums. They are calling the shots for the institutions that attract over 5 million visitors a year, serve as the cultural tourist destinations for Italy, and house collections that chronicle some of the highest aesthetic times of humanity. So how does one manage all this? How does one set goals to not only maintain what has always ben sacred and the main attraction point, but to also grow it such that it adjusts to today’s trends, remains appealing, and most importantly asserts its relevance to its changing audiences.
Natali made an interesting comment about hosting innovative art exhibitions. Innovative? Wait a minute, I thought he was the director of the Uffizi, aka that place where the name of the game is to preserve the traditional? Well yes, but also no. The name of the Uffizi is so famous, that there is no concern over if visitors will come, and if they do come if it will be enough to sustain the institution. Instead, it is a matter of how many visitors there will be, what the average wait in the line will be, and how they are able to move throughout the museums. With the insecurity of audience attendance gone, the museum has the flexibility to experiment. People will come to the Uffizi, so why not introduce them to something new and different while they are there? The theory is that showing an unknown temporary artist won’t scare visitors away because, well, they still have Botticelli. Even if the visitors have already decided to come for one reasons more associated with learning from a guidebook, why not try to convince them to stay a bit longer for another reason?
Natali notices that the goal of his institution is to not help Italy grow economically; it is to get people in the doors with the convocation that they will leave more cultured, happy, enlightened and inspired. Yes, it is a tourist destination. Yes that equals money. But all of this fame and fortune, means responsibility. I like the thought that the museum is trying to create a certain mentality within its visitors before they enter the museums. They want to create a certain sentiment of learning before individuals even step foot into the corridors of the gallery.
Paolucci chimes in about not only how to use the weight of your institutions name to slowly work in advanced or avant-garde work into your programming, but also the concept of why he has never desired to travel the Vatican Collections outside of the Vatican Walls. Now, this may make you instantly irritated because you may think “Well not everyone can make a trip to Rome to see the works, and I thought art was for everyone. Why can’t some of the collection go on tour? The main argument behind this is based on a question of presence. The art is the art because of where it is from, Italy. The art is the art because of its allegiance to a certain culture, because of its being brought into being by certain hands. As Paolucci astutely noted in himself, he sees the artwork as not only being complete only in its place or origin, but also losing its value almost completely if moved to rest in another location. He used the example of Dubai. Given this is a center of wealth, artistic appreciation, and growing tourism, why not move some of the Vatican Collection there? Why not put the art where the people are? Well, because the very soul of the art is largely in part due to its cultural context, its home, its origin, the surroundings that speak to and inform it.
Just as one includes their place of origin when meeting new people, so do works of art. They have stories of their travels, and it is the land that they come from that is the most important. WIthout these kinds of claims of origin, how else would art stand to be reminders of specific histories, cultures and traditions? If a work of art becomes too much a piece belonging to the world, what story is it actually telling? In art there is both one and the many because is an object that while representative of one culture, has the ability to be a visual learning experience for all.
At the end of the day, whether we like to admit it, where we are from in large part carves the paths leading to who we become. Even if we become someone directly against our roots, our roots were nonetheless the very reference point for that decision. Art should always maintain its status as a kind reference point, a trail marker. Maybe it is best to put it this way: anyone is allowed to engage with any art, but anyone is not allowed to claim any art.